William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English and of Visual and Environmental Studies Harvard University
Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety
There can be no culture without the transvestite.
Beginning with this bold claim, Marjorie Garber explores the nature and significance of cross-dressing and of the West’s recurring fascination with it.
Vested Interests is a tour de force of cultural criticism; its investigations range across history, literature, film, photography, and popular and mass culture, from Shakespeare to Mark Twain, from Oscar Wilde to Peter Pan, from transsexual surgery to transvestite ‘sororities’ to Madonna and Flip Wilson, Valentino and Elvis.
What, Marjorie Garber asks, does clothing have to do with sexuality? How do dress codes contribute to the organization of society? How is passing as a man or a woman related to racial passing? Is transvestism a sign of homosexuality? What are the politics of drag? Why are cross-dressing rituals so commonly a part of the male power elite? How do transvestites appear – and disappear – in detective fiction? Is religious costume a kind of cross-dressing? Why is Peter Pan played by a woman?
Rich in anecdote and insight, Vested Interests offers a provocative argument about our ongoing obsession with dressing up – and the power of clothes.
“As the scholar Marjorie Garber points out in her fascinating new book, gender-bending images have proliferated throughout contemporary culture ... The transvestite challenges the desire, she writes, to “tell the difference,” putting “in question identities previously conceived as stable, unchallengeable, grounded, and ‘known.’” As a result, says Ms. Garber, a professor of English and director of the Center for Literary and Cultural Studies at Harvard University, transvestites in a cultural context frequently indicate what she calls a “category crisis” – that is, a situation in which the lines between two categories (of gender, class, race, age or religion) have become blurred or permeable ... Equally fluent in writing about popular music and in discussing Shakespeare, Ms. Garber demonstrates an enormous range of knowledge in this volume ... a compelling set of case studies, drawn from the arts and real life ... a fascinating compendium of cross-dressing and written a provocative piece of cultural criticism.”
– Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“ ... erudite and exhilaratingly well-argued ... her [Garber’s] argument is both intricate and persuasive.”
– Lucy Hughes-Hallett, The New York Times Book Review
“ Garber boldly asserts that transvestism makes culture possible by deliberately confusing the constructs of gender identification and challenging the social control they seek to maintain. Well documented and thoroughly researched, Garber’s book is a serious work that is not without a piquant feel for the ironic, especially as she details the lengths to which both men and women have gone to hide their gender in order to get ahead in the world ... a fascinating book about an equally fascinating subject. Highly recommended.”
– Library Journal
“ Vested Interests is a political and emotional gold mine – beautifully illustrated, and written with wit, style, and with obvious love for the subject. Could you ask for more?”
– Kate Bornstein, Lambda Book Report
“In a day when most academics style their prose after the motto “No Pain, No Gain,” Vested Interests is truly a joy to read. This is a big book in every sense, ebullient and alive with insight and imagination. Garber has produced a TV guide for our time, exploring the cultural conundrums of cross-dressing with unflagging intelligence and a rich sense of irony.”
– Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
“In this encyclopedic and irreverent survey of cross-dressing in high art, social practice, and popular scandal, Marjorie Garber invites us to see the transvestite as a figure who embodies the permanent crisis of category at the very heart of human culture. Her study is remarkable not only for its density of historical anecdote and consistency of fascinating detail but also for its exhilarating demonstration of the many different ways that we can play the high-risk game of gender.”
– David M. Halperin
“Vested Interests represents the forefront of both Cultural and Gender Studies, intricating gender and culture more fundamentally than ever before. Garber strips us of our operative assumptions about style and substance, role and identity. What we thought would be an entertaining consideration of clothes leaves us no longer sure we know where to look for the naked truth.”